Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996, Donald Pettit has spent the last 25 years training, preparing, and traveling into space with America’s premier space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.
A veteran of three spaceflights, Pettit was the NASA Science Officer for Expedition 6, operated the robotic arm for STS-126 in 2008, and served as a Flight Engineer for Expedition 30/31 in 2012, where he lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for more than six months. In all, Pettit has spent nearly 370 days in space, including logging more than 13 hours of extravehicular activity, working outside the confines of the ISS.
In his first trip to space during Expedition 6 in 2002-2003, Pettit used spare parts through the ISS to build a barn door tracker that compensated for the movement of the ISS relative Earth, allowing astronauts to keep a camera study during long exposures. The fruits of Pettit’s labor resulted in some of the most iconic views of city lights, aurora borealis, and stars and planets from the ISS. “The ISS became Don’s personal Hubble,” remarked NASA’s Dr. Tony Phillips.
Pettit’s sense of adventure hasn’t been limited to space. In 2006, Pettit joined the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, spending six weeks in Antarctica collecting meteorite samples. According to the American Space Museum & Space Walk of Fame, during the month and a half expedition to one of the most remote regions on Earth, Pettit was called upon to perform emergency electrical repairs to one of the team’s snowmobiles and emergency dental surgery. An eclectic mix of achievements, yet assuredly vital to all those involved.
At 65-years-old, Pettit is NASA’s oldest active astronaut, currently preparing for his next trip back into space.
Recently, The Debrief spoke with Don Pettit about his experiences in space and what lies ahead for the future of space travel.
You were working as a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory when you were selected to be an astronaut candidate in 1996. Tell me a little bit about that path and how you became an astronaut and ultimately traveling into space.
The way you become an astronaut is pretty simple. The first part is A, you have to have the interest. B have the technical qualifications, and then you have to put in an application. That’s really all you need to be selected, but I tell kids there’s not going to be some limo that’s going to pull up in front of your house and some people get out and give you the secret handshake and now you’re in the program.
The only way you’re going to get to be an astronaut is to really rush the door by putting in an application.
Am I correct, you were 41-years old when you were first selected to be an astronaut?
Yeah, that’s correct. The age in my class ranged from 31 to 48. Probably the average age at the time of selection was in the late 30s.
Ok, I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I think most would assume the ability to ever be an astronaut is something you have to attempt early in life. In the military you have to be under 30 years old, with a waiver up to 35 being possible. But at 36 the dream of being a fighter pilot is over, but that’s not the case when it comes to being an astronaut.
A big part of it is the maturity level and experience level. By the time you are in your mid-30s and you’ve had 10 to 15 years doing some kind of technical work, then you’re in a position to show what you can do. That tends to be the age group that people get selected.
I realize this is a very cliche question to ask an astronaut, but going back to your first mission, what was it like the first time you looked out the window from space? What’s that feeling like?
My first mission I rode up on middeck on the space shuttle Endeavor. I was in charge of getting people out of their space suits and doing a few steps to switch the space shuttle from being a rocket to being an orbiting space vehicle. I didn’t get a chance to even look at Earth for probably a half-hour, maybe 45 minutes.
But the first time I finally floated up to the flight deck and looked out the windows and there was earth… it was just an amazing view. We were somewhere over the Pacific Ocean and the blues, the intensity of the blue is what impressed me the most.
That’s something the vast majority of us can only imagine and have to live vicariously through astronauts like yourself or from photographs. Ultimately, is that emotion of being in space something you have to experience and is it hard to adequately describe?
Yeah. It’s the same effect of standing next to the Rocky Mountains and feeling it, versus having somebody else telling you what a mountain looks like. To really have the complete experience, you just have to be there. In the case of the mountains you can feel chill, the wind in your face, and you can hear the wind. In the case of being in space, you’re weightless so everything is floating and jiggling around, and you hear all of these scans and bits of machinery that are operating to keep you alive.
At the same time you’re looking out a window that has no less than four panes of material at this incredible view of planet Earth.
After being in space and seeing Earth that way, did it have an effect on you or change your perspective?
No. No, it didn’t change my perspective and what I find is that whatever your preconceived views of Earth and how humanity fits into things, when you look at Earth from space it will reaffirm your pre-existing views.
Well let me ask you. Even going back to the Cold War or more recently in modern geopolitical history, nations that may often treat each other as rivals, have a history of working together when it comes to space exploration. The most obvious examples being the United States and Russia. Do you think the drive to explore space transcends a lot of the differences we have?
What you have hit here is a generalization of when you are an explorer in a frontier. People from different countries work together and I saw this in Antarctica when we were sleeping in Scott tents 200 miles from the South Pole. Somebody can come traipsing into your camp and your tent is their tent. It’s a universal thing where you are out in the wilderness, a harsh environment, and somebody else comes around and you do whatever is necessary to keep all the explorers in a healthy state.
Makes sense. Well let me ask you, since becoming an astronaut in the mid-90s to today, what has changed the most and where do you see the future of space travel?
Most of the changes are on the ground. When I first came here we barely had email and now everything is done by email. Then smartphones have really changed things. When you’re traveling to Russia, and other places you need your smartphone because it has all sorts of documents and papers that you need, that normally you’d have to carry half a file cabinet with you and you can get your boarding pass [on your smartphone].
So what I find is that the ancillary effort on the ground has changed more by the current state of technology. The space flight hardware that we’re using, we’re the same propellants that were used back in the 60’s. We’re using the same basic rocket engine design. For example, the Falcon 9 rocket, it goes to space on kerosene. The Russian Soyuz rocket which was designed literally in the 50’s, first came to fruition in the 50’s, and then was human ready shortly after, it goes into space on kerosene and oxygen. Then came hydrogen and oxygen.
So the basic design of the rockets have not changed. The electronics that runs them have changed a little bit. The computers are more powerful, but they can also be more susceptible to signal event upsets from galactic cosmic rays and then all of the sudden quit. So there’s pluses and minuses to the new technology that we have today.
Hmmm ok. Well that might make people feel better about themselves. We’ve got more advanced technology on the ground than the astronauts going into space. Ok, well you get to pick, anything is on the table, what would be your ideal or the perfect next space mission to go on?
I’m in line with all of the other astronauts in the office. It could be an Artemis flight. It could be a space station flight. And I really don’t care what kind or flavor my next spaceflight mission comes in.
Until my next spaceflight mission comes, I’m happy to do whatever technical ground assignment that I’m working on in-between flights.
So just getting back into space. That’s the most important to you?
Yeah, when your job description says astronaut flying in space is what you are supposed to be doing. The next best thing to flying in space is training to fly into space. In between that we do technical ground jobs.
Are there any underappreciated areas of space exploration that doesn’t get highlighted enough?
You know, flying in space is hard work. It’s hard work to prepare. It’s hard work once you’re in space. You don’t really get to relax until you’re back. I don’t think most people realize how hard the work is, not only to get into space, but to also do your mission once you’re in space.
The public sees people working through NASA downlink, and you’ll see an astronaut just kind of floating in front of a computer display every once in a while pushing on a key. You say, ‘Ah! That’s easy work,’ but from the astronauts perspective you are just under immense time constraints for getting everything done.
We will generally start work in the morning, 7 a.m., and we’re scheduled every five minute period of the day until 7 p.m. We’re usually over-scheduled, so we’ll end up working at least 12 to 13 or 14 hour days. And get this, they never schedule you any time to go to the bathroom. You just have to figure out how to grab time to go to use the toilet in between moments when you’ve finished up one task and you’re dashing off to the next.
So it’s really, really hard work when you are in space.
So what you’re saying is it’s not a vacation to fly in space?
Yeah we don’t fly in space to oogle looking out the window and take pictures. In fact, all the Earth science pictures that you see astronauts do in their off-duty time. We are basically given no time to take pictures of Earth as part of our formal duties. Because taking pictures of Earth becomes part of people’s space hobbies when they’re on a mission, that’s where all of the now millions of pictures of Earth from the space station come from.
Last question. Whenever I watch any of the space launches or say the landing of the Mars Perseverance Rover, one of the things I always enjoy is seeing the reactions of everyone in mission control and on the ground. You can really tell that the men in women in those rooms are really invested in these missions, sitting right on the edge of their seats. How important are those ground crews and the people back on the ground to the astronauts who are up there either on their way or already in space?
That’s a good question. Our whole space program, both Russian and U.S. was built during the day when the computer capability was insufficient on board the spacecraft to figure out what’s going on. And that’s the reason we have these huge mission controls, literally with hundreds of people.
What you see on TV with mission control is just the front room. There’s probably five or six back rooms packed full of people. There’s probably close to 100 to 150 people to every launch and that gets trimmed down once you get on orbit.
The launch phase is highly dynamic. It’s the more risky phase, same thing with reentry. You have all those people on the ground, each looking at their own subsystem, real-time with telemetry. They’re 100 brains and 100 pairs of eyes, each looking with their own specialty is better than a handful of crew members and what they could do onboard the rocket. And that’s just because the dynamics of what’s going on.
The margins are so slim in terms of space. The difference between your rocket being happy vs. your rocket blowing up and falling back to Earth in all these little tiny pieces. Those margins are so slim that currently we need all of those people to help the crew out during launch.
It’s definitely a team effort. Currently, there are no rockets that I know of that the crew is actually involved with flying the rocket. Every crewed rocket has a sizable mission control behind it to aid in the crew in their operation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.